So, what makes Karachi special?

A number of “special” things crossed my mind. But soon, the “specials” were taken over by the “horrids”...

The writer is author of the book Karachiwala: a subcontinent within a city and co-founder of NuktaArt, a biannual art magazine

“So what makes Karachi special?”, a first-time visitor to the country and city asked me. I looked at her with a mixture of pride and horror, feelings which I could not easily explain, even to myself. A number of “special” things crossed my mind. But soon, the “specials” were taken over by the “horrids” and so I sulked.

I proudly informed the newcomer that Karachi was once called “the city of lights”. Lately, however, there have been regular and acute power shortages throughout the country, because of which, the city cannot afford to have its street lights on all night. All public and private buildings, as well as residences, conserve energy, as an expression of our civic sense, I told her.

She brought out her camera at the sight of a bus. I jumped at this chance to explain to her our unique “art on wheels”, hoping that she wouldn’t notice the number of people hanging onto the bus like honey bees swarming around a hive. I definitely didn’t want her to notice those 50 odd men squeezed onto the luggage rack on the vehicle’s roof. But she did notice when an entire fleet of buses passed by, right in front of us that very minute. After clicking her camera to her heart’s content, she turned to me.

I sensed that she was going to ask some difficult and sensitive questions regarding our public infrastructure: mass transit, poverty, safety aspects, mortality rate, etc. Instead, she got distracted by the next sight, a donkey cart dragging some 20-foot long steel bars that were scratching the asphalt as the poor donkey struggled on. She pointed to the red and black flag-like rags tied to the bars and somewhat bewildered, asked if these really acted as deterrents for vehicles following the cart.

“Yes, of course!” I was quick to respond, and went on to say that we were quite conscious of the hazards such cargo posed, and therefore, took full precautions. But before she could comprehend whether my reply was in earnest or jest, she saw something else that made her jaw drop. “One, two, three, four, five … ” she was counting the number of adults and children on a motorbike passing by.

She was quiet for a few minutes as she observed the city from the comfort of the air-conditioned car. As we stopped at a traffic signal, our car was surrounded by half a dozen people. She was a little disturbed by the tapping and knocking on the glass. “Beggars?” she turned to me. “Oh no, they are just vendors trying to sell stuff. We are a dynamic people. Everyone works,” I said, as if in their defence. “Even children?”, she asked, with a note of contempt, bordering on pity.

She continued asking questions throughout our ride: “It seems like everyone around here carries a gun. Do you also own one? Why are there such few women pedestrians? Why are there so many tree stumps on this road? Why are there so many unfinished buildings along all the roads? Are they going to be completed soon? Do you have a construction boom in Karachi?”

“Well yes, you are right. At about 20 million, Karachi is the fastest growing city in the world!” I said. I wasn’t sure if this was my justification for the visual chaos we were witnessing, or an excuse for our failure to manage the city better. But this is my city, my “special” Karachi.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2013.

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Napier Mole | 9 years ago | Reply

@ SK

You hit it perfectly when you trace Karachi's ills to its lack of representation due to the absence of a continuous, strong and effective local bodies system. You are also right when you point out that mqm detracted from its core urban issues and failed to protest effectively for the restoration of the LG system during the last five years it was in partnership with ppp. PTI had a good chance to make a foothold in Karachi by raising its voice on this issue but then it was only driven by an anti mqm rather than a pro karachi agenda. SC took up the LG issue but apparently did not find sexy enough and moved on to the violence related matters failing to realize that they are the effects, not the cause of Karachi's present issues. Whatever its faults, the hope - and the responsibility - to fight the case for Karachi's urban government rests with mqm. May they rise to this challenge in the spirit of the mqm of the 80s.

Hamza | 9 years ago | Reply

uhm being a Karachite and an American, i think the writer truely defended Karachi... well you see now it is a dangerous place as far as i have seen, yeah Karachi's past years were awesome........ but being an undergrad student and listening to all the "good things" about this city, no one wants to leave this city, and everyone wanna come back.. ask anyone who is away from this city. I hope that we regain our past glory again soon....Inshallah!

And yes the fact that you quoted is actually right, that Karachi is the fastest growing in the world, and also one of the most diverse... you'll see pathan, panjabi, muhajir, sindhi, balochi and many more people from different cultures.....(this is a good fact but also has a negative effect as it leads to more sectarian violence)

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